Punarbhava Banik and Paromita Sen from SEWA Bharat (an India-based women’s economic empowerment organisation and GRRIPP South Asia partner) write about the enduring challenges informal women workers face utilising India’s new digitised social security net.
After decades of lobbying by central trade unions in India, the Government of India rolled out a nationwide database of unorganised sector workers called e-Shram that would enable workers to access a range of social security benefits including, but not limited to, accident and life insurance, pensions, food security, as well as employment guarantee schemes. The e-Shram database – and its accompanying ID card – theoretically centralise enrolment and access for informal workers, thus replacing multiple other enrolments and registrations, and allows nation-wide access, which is an increasingly critical need in this day and age of migratory work patterns.
For women workers across the unorganised sector (over 91% of women in paid employment in India are employed in the informal sector), this has the potential to be a significant improvement. A centralised system would reduce the logistical challenges faced by these women and enable access to multiple schemes and benefits that they may not even have previously been aware of. An independent ID card for women workers also provides them with access to the social security net, independent of family or head of household linked schemes, which become untenable rapidly for a variety of reasons including - but not limited to - migration, ill-health, or separation, all compounded by gender inequalities within households.
This potential digital panacea however is plagued with questions around enrolment, obstacles to access, and the undue burden this puts on some of the most vulnerable of our societies. The process of enrolment requires women to be digitally literate or, at the very least, digitally aware and connected. Women are expected to have access to communication assets (cellphones with an Internet connection) in order to register, receive registration codes, and confirm and maintain their enrolment. The necessary level of digital infrastructure and literacy, however, is severely impaired in rural and tribal communities, and this results in significant delays in the enrolment process. Delays mean women having to make multiple visits to the registration center, which has compounded financial losses through a loss of income, as well as struggles with maintaining care work responsibilities at home and in their communities, with each delay.
To circumvent these infrastructural and literacy limitations, women are turning to agents who facilitate enrolment for a (hefty) charge. As we discovered on a field visit in early October, agents’ rates were often higher if the area was more disconnected and if the workers had relatively less negotiating and bargaining power. Agents tap into local crony networks and leverage these to enrol workers en masse, while more inclusive and rights-focused social actors (like civic centers, CSOs et al) are further relegated to the end of the queue. This puts workers in a bind: shell out scarce rupees or navigate a complicated and time-consuming bureaucratic process.
In January 2022, an in-house survey by SEWA Bharat highlighted that while 60% of the women we work with had registered themselves in the database, only half of those had done it through SEWA (in the areas covered by this survey, SEWA is the only active CSO focussing on this work). The rest used agents (no one reported navigating the process themselves). Workers are essentially lining up to enrol themselves through the fastest means possible, even if it takes out a significant amount of their (in)disposable income. When asked why, beedi rollers in rural Bengal (cynically) commented, “Eyi card theke kichhu haube naa, kintu naa bol le, phaaydaa o haube naa. (Nothing will happen with this card, but if we say no, then we also don’t get any benefits.)” Workers are still lining up and expending scarce resources because they can’t risk missing out on potential (however unlikely in their experience) benefits that prove critical in times of crisis. They rationalise this resource expenditure as a hedging of their bets, a premium they were paying in the hopes of picking up a dividend in the uncertain future.
This investment in e-Shram is also unlikely to bear fruit, unfortunately. While women are enrolling in larger numbers in schemes - something that governments tout as great successes - their ability to access and utilise the ‘benefits’ of these schemes are abysmally low. The same January 2022 survey of SEWA members highlighted that while 35% of the sample were enrolled in a national health insurance scheme, only 1% of the sample were able to utilise this insurance to cover costs when the need arose. This overwhelming gap between those who enrolled and those who actually accessed schemes was found to be a combination of a lack of understanding what was owed to them as a beneficiary of the scheme on one hand, and frustration with navigating the exclusionary and byzantine bureaucratic social security system on the other. This inaccessibility is compounded by the fact that the social security net is often most urgently needed when there is a crisis and when time is a scarce commodity, but the processes of actually accessing the scheme are so lengthy, women turn to other means of raising the necessary resources in those moments. What this leaves us with, therefore, are workers who are over-registered across multiple schemes but with limited understanding of what rights and support are owed to them. This is in spite of an increasing (financial and) bureaucratic burden on them to remain documented; while access to the related benefits remain a distant pipe dream for many. For vulnerable women working in the unorganised sector, (who manage multiple and impending crises daily), this uncertainty leaves them even more precariously placed and brings communities closer to the brink of the next devastating humanitarian crisis.
Notes  SEWA, a national trade union with a membership base of over 2 million women workers in the informal sector, was a key advocate for the establishment of a nationwide database of informal workers to enable national access to schemes, benefits and labour protections. SEWA Bharat is affiliated with the SEWA movement, as the all-India federation of SEWA Institutions.  India faced a critical migrant crisis at the onset of the COVID pandemic with a national lockdown stranding over 100 million migrants away from their primary domicile, and precipitating a severe humanitarian crisis over and above the COVID pandemic.
 Beedi (or bidi) rollers hand-roll small cigarettes.
Punarbhava Banik serves as a Programme Coordinator at SEWA Bharat, where she focuses on building local capacity across programmes in the states of West Bengal and Jharkhand. Her portfolio includes the securement of decent wages and dignified working conditions, youth leadership development, digital and financial literacy, and institutional development. Previously, she was a Gandhi Fellow with Kaivalya Education Foundation, where her responsibilities included working with various stakeholders across eight municipal schools and community members in the adjoining slum areas across Thane (Maharashtra). She has completed her MA in Development Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi.
Paromita Sen is the Research and Data Manager at SEWA Bharat, the national federation of SEWA organizations dedicated to women working in the informal economy. Paromita runs the in-house research unit at SEWA Bharat which collects and evaluates research on entrepreneurship, empowerment, labour, disaster resilience, and leadership amongst others - all through the lens of gender and the informal economy. Under the aegis of SEWA leadership, she has represented SEWA and been involved in work with Niti Aayog, the Delhi Government, NRLM, CSW, ILO, and the Lok Sabha amongst others. She has done extensive research on gender issues within the developing world and has published on leadership, social movements and mobilisation, and development work.